Cold War is a heart-crushing film about love, music and a divided Europe

Yet in charting a doomed romance shaped by political upheavals, the film seems not to lay the necessary groundwork for its conclusion. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Pawel Pawlikowski knows the value of brevity. This 60-year-old auteur, who came to Britain at the age of 14 when his parents sought political asylum here, has yet to make a film longer than 90 minutes. Not Last Resort, about asylum seekers in a Kent coastal town, or My Summer of Love, the bracingly honest coming-of-age drama that introduced the world to Emily Blunt, or The Woman in the Fifth, the ghost story he shot in the aftermath of his wife’s death. And not Ida, the stark tale of postwar guilt that marked the director’s return to his native Warsaw and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

His latest movie, Cold War, keeps the same fat-free form while covering more ground than ever. In charting a doomed romance shaped by political upheavals, it leaps several years at a time from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, boiling down hundreds of nights of yearning and tragedy, elation and betrayal, into one astringent reduction.

In this regard, it is not unlike the Polish song that resurfaces throughout the film in a variety of arrangements (traditional folk, smoky jazz, emphatic show-tune) and speaks of “two hearts, four eyes” and a love that can never be. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a pianist and musicologist touring Poland immediately after the war collecting folk songs, which find their way eventually into a touring, state-sponsored show. Out of the auditions, a kind of Poland’s Got Talent in which peasants sing their socks off, emerges the radiantly raw-faced Zula (Joanna Kulig). She may not be the mountain girl she claims to be but Wiktor insists she possesses “something else”. The rumour that she has been in the clink for murder seems only to inflame his fascination.

The authorities promise to facilitate a tour of Eastern Bloc countries on one proviso: might a number or two be added to the company’s repertoire celebrating, say, the wonders of land reform? Cut to the next show, where a flag bearing the face of Stalin is hoisted at the back of the stage, dwarfing the performers as they sing his praises. It is in communism’s shadow that the tentative attraction between Wiktor and Zula explodes into full-blown passion. Right from the start, Zula has been, at the instruction of the obsequious Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), spying on Wiktor. Coming clean about this (“I’ve been ratting on you”) does little to reassure him. But nor does it dampen a desire that is already close to engulfing them both.

Over the next decade or so, the paths of the lovers diverge and cross again in various locations: in Paris, where Wiktor works as a bebop pianist after defecting, and in the Yugoslav town where the show makes a stop on its barnstorming tour and Zula looks out into the audience to see the lost love of her life staring back.

The whole nature of Cold War is one of abbreviation: snappy editing, temporal jumps, deliberately unresolved emotions. Like Ida, it is shot in black-and-white in the Academy ratio, which creates a square image rather than the usual rectangular one, and makes even the shots of barren white landscapes seem cramped and inhibited. But what Kulig and Kot do with mysterious skill is use their faces to fill in any gaps. We don’t need to know the nuts-and-bolts of what happens during each ellipsis, the months or years they’ve been pining for one another, because it’s all soaked and scarred into their skin.

In the hands of Pawlikowski and his composer and arranger, Marcin Masecki, music becomes a storytelling tool, an editing device and a way of telegraphing cultural changes. Most effectively it comments on the narrative itself: “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”, indeed. In keeping with the general briskness, Pawlikowski never dwells too long on any plot-point or detail; only in the final moments does this approach reveal its shortcomings, when the necessary groundwork seems not to have been laid properly for the conclusion. Until then, this is a film of glancing, heart-crushing pleasures, like the nocturnal trip taken by Wiktor and Zula along the Seine – the lights picking out a lone figure on the banks, or a couple canoodling, before the darkness consumes them and they are gone. 

Cold War (15)
dir: Pawel Pawlikowski

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic